In Joe Wenderoth’s most recent collection of poems, If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep (Wave Books, 2014), the speaker is in constant discovery of his limitations. Whether it’s a desire to travel, to offer sympathy, to miss a loved one, to avoid bureaucratic obligations, to assemble a clown, to keep in shape, “to eat of the world you live in,” the speaker visits each poem only to find more despair and more limits. “I very recently came into complete possession of where I am. / Trouble is: / having complete possession of where I am / diminishes the potential of my dramatic arc.” The speaker realizes this during “My Coronation,” where awareness is a coming to terms with playing an unsatisfying role.
Wenderoth’s poetry is an exploration in unfixed limits, in how each poem gets us further and further away from a perceived, cathartic end. A professor of English and creative writing at UC Davis, Wenderoth is perhaps best known for writing an epistolary on fast food comment cards. But Letters to Wendy’s (Wave Books, 2004) eludes the gimmickry of project-minded works through its absurdity-embracing lens and raw handling of feeling. It fits in with the uncomfortable honesty that characterizes the rest of Wenderoth’s work, which includes Disfortune (Wesleyan, 1995), It is if I Speak (Wesleyan, 2000), No Real Light (Wave Books, 2007), and a collection of essays. His poems are often bleak but always full-bodied in the experiences they channel.
Paola Capó-García The title and cover of your new collection have a backstory, can you go into their origins?
Joe Wenderoth I met a guy over in Woodland, which is an American town about fifteen minutes drive from Davis. Davis is a small island afloat in America but not America per se. Davis is where I “live,” but Woodland is where I go to get drunk and sing karaoke. One of the regulars at a bar we used to go to was a guy by the name of Fritz. Fritz was odd. Very friendly, bad sense of humor, often casually leering, maybe a little “slow.” When we met him, he was a cook at Sizzler’s. His speech is difficult to understand, especially in a noisy bar. He turns his head quickly like a bird sometimes. He has very bad teeth. I could go on, but maybe I will just say that he happened upon me and some of my friends and family at the bowling alley—my daughter’s tenth birthday party. He started to kind of hover around the party, watching us and sipping his fountain soda through a straw, occasionally wandering over to say something to me. He would likely have been telling me about his next mascotting gig (he’s been the UCD Aggie mascot and he has also worked for the Sacramento River Cats, Sacramento Kings, etcetera). Just loves to mascot. My wife tells me he can’t keep hovering around the edge of the party, because he is scaring people. There are many further stories I could tell. I only introduce you to Fritz because he is the one who wrote the note that I used for the title of my book. The cover of the book is a facsimile of the real note, which was written on the back of a little square karaoke slip, which I still have. I love the way he drew a line between the two parts of the title. He wrote me many such notes, as there was a period of time wherein he could not speak intelligibly. I was asking him about it and he was trying to explain his affliction—something to do with his lungs. I won’t belabor why I liked the note so much, except to say that it spoke to me. Spoke to me in a way not intended, of course.
PCG There’s a lot of attention in this collection being paid to playing a part, to artifice (whether it’s Access Hollywood, the grandmother in front of the camera, or the role of the professor). Poetry is also brought up as some sort of artifice. Is this, for you, more of a celebration of artifice or a lament? Or is it a combination of both?
JW That line in Celan’s poem, “Speak, you too,” where he basically says: speak … but keep Yes and No unsplit. Celan, unlike someone like Stevens, is not inclined to give advice about how to write poetry, but here is an exception. The artifice, Celan understands, is beautiful, stupid, dangerous, life-saving, corrupting, and perhaps all there is. I am speaking of the artifice of the poem, as that is the artifice he is speaking of. The artifice of society—its organization of bodies and their sustaining customs—is another matter altogether. The artifice of society—I think of Berryman’s Henry in “Dream Song #7”: “For the rats / have moved in, mostly, and this is for real.” And of course one thinks of Marx—the means of production have become so massive, a Frankenstein etcetera. Bottom line is that the situation—in terms of the oncoming nightmare/toxic dump/simulation-trap has made the artifice of poetry obsolete, obscene, obtuse. Nevertheless it goes on, of course, and this fact is at the foundation of my own contempt for a great deal of the contemporary poetry I come across. I agree again with Celan when he suggests that the only poetry that can be taken seriously now is necessarily gray, uncertain (groping, i.e. human presence). I think Celan thought of his poetry as moments in which he was able to get free of artfulness, or art. Similar to Whitman here—proposing poetry as an act of life rather than an act of art. I would like to agree, but I suppose the poems I’ve been writing bear witness to a life sometimes unable to get free of art.
And perhaps simply: the older you get, the more artificial it all seems.
PCG You’ve bookended the collection with allusions to death (“Satan Is Real” and “The Difference between the Living and the Dead”) and peppered the whole collection with bodies moving toward death or dreams/visions of death. What is death in relation to the artifice? What is death in relation to poetry?
JW I don’t see death in “Satan Is Real.” To the contrary. If Satan is real, this means he is here, now, in life. Of course the poem is largely inspired by the Louvin Brothers’ song of the same title. I think of that song as a meditation on artifice. My poem—what can I say? I can say maybe why I like it. If I didn’t like it, it wouldn’t be in the book, let alone the first page! I like to think of the first two lines as simple statements of fact. This evokes a you and an I, and their shared crime: knowing/singing. The concluding question, for me, is homage to the absurd, i.e. consciousness, i.e. each and every one of us having come out of fucking NOWHERE. What is the mechanism for coming out of fucking NOWHERE? That’s the question.
PCG Marc T. Wise, in his review of your book, wrote, “With this emptiness, Wenderoth evokes Celan’s terminal without.” Being a Celan devout, what do you think he means? Do you agree?
JW Wow, I read that review and liked it a lot, but I don’t recall this part of it. He reads me very well, I’d say, but then I can’t really say that because it would make me look like a pompous asshole. So: no comment—the jury is instructed to disregard, etcetera.
I think you’re asking about the phrase, “Celan’s terminal without.” An interesting phrase. Reminds me of Artaud somehow:
one fine day
the idea of the world.
Two paths were open to him:
that of the infinite without,
that of the infinitesimal within.
And he chose the infinitesimal within.
And what is infinity?
That is precisely what we do not know!
It is a word
that we use
the opening of our consciousness
tireless and beyond measure.
And precisely what is consciousness?
That is precisely what we do not know.
It is nothingness.1
In Artaud, however, “the without” is “infinite” rather than “terminal.” Artaud sees hope in that which is beyond mere self—it is, in fact, the only place he sees hope. Now mind you: hope, for Artaud, is not a human thing so much as it is a scream, for use in getting free of the human (the infinitesimal within of the so-called psychological). For Celan, that which is beyond mere self is the space of Godless atrocities. My own poems’ evocation/engagement of “the without” falls somewhere somehow between these two, I think. When someone says they enjoyed my poem, I feel like they are poking their head into my hospital room to say they enjoyed the scream of pain they just heard as they were walking down the hallway. Thanks so much.
PCG Does this mean you see the reader as mere voyeur? Is the reader someone to be mistrustful of? Where does the reader stand in your writing process?
JW If you and I were the only persons in my house, and I spoke, it would most likely be toyou. It would be unlikely for me to be in your presence and to speak … but not to you. Even if I seemed to be speaking to myself, you would think—correctly—that I’m aware of your presence, and know that you can hear me. People in this society are so oblivious to poetry—to what poetry is—because of just this point. Speech/text, in America, is always presumed to be useful, the result of someone’s intentions. Thus, speech/text is constantly diminished toward personal willfulnesses, and whatever personal willfulnesses choose to obsess over in terms of their progress and/or standing in the social realm, or even the progress of “history,” which seems to concern a great many willfulnesses. But the person doesn’t only use speech/text; the person is capable of bearing witness to where they are. This bearing witness might be defined as, or at the very least triggered by, the ceasing of willfulness.
Willfulness causes you to look at where you are as a tool and/or as a resource. Resource: where you are is yours (you own it!) … to use. Language is obviously useful for you and you wield it, mainly, like a tool, though sometimes it morphs into a weapon. Language, down to the signature, binds your ownership of where you are. But it isn’t like language ceases to exist when you cease to use it. When you are alone, in complete silence, and you unburden yourself of all intentions, you still hear language. It still comes to you. In the realm of language-using, language is always coming to you or from you. When it comes to you, though, it always comes from someone else, and carries with it this other’s intentions (and the manner in which they are entwined with your intentions). When it comes from you, it is the same way—your intentions are expressed, entwined with the understood intentions of your target.
Poetry is when language comes to you, not from someone else, but from you. Or I should say from your abandoning of intention. So, sans intention, it is not so much “you” the language is coming from—it would be fairer to say that the language is coming from that which is not a resource, paid attention (and memory). Your presumed grasp on language—the grasp allowing you to use it—tends to dinsintegrate. Your lonely disorientation causes a new relationship to language. You might speak now by listening; your listening stabs are a stuttering/groping at where you are, at orientation in time, if not space.
PCG You mention eating quite a bit in this collection. The inability to nourish oneself from this world, or the desire/need to, or eating as a last resort. What is it about eating that made you go back to it?
JW I noticed this. This focus on eating. It’s sad. It’s “the without” one must eat from. Can’t eat from the within. Our destruction of the without is no doubt one of the things compelling my awareness of our need to eat of it—our need to eat from a destroyed place (Earth). Makes me think of that bathtub scene in Gummo. Makes me think, too, of that Magritte painting: “Young girl eating a bird (The pleasure).” In the painting, a young girl has just plucked a bird from a tree, a tree in which birds grow like fruit, and bitten into it, bloodying her dress. A hopeful painting, compared with our current eating situation.
PCG I’m thinking about Dorothea Lasky’s “Poetry is not a Project” and her anxiety about calling poetry, or any artistic work, a project because it privileges the larger concept over the actual work and the experience of the individual work. Basically, the idea is always more interesting than the product. Do you think of your work as a project? Does it inhabit a larger project or is each one its own autonomous thing?
JW I pretty much agree with her. I write poems. Collect them into books. The challenge for a poet should be: write a great poem. That would be a huge achievement, and the poem might be just two lines long. Project might be thought of as length. Project is a way to take the focus off of the challenge: write a great poem. Much easier to say: I’m working on a series of sonnets from the point of view of each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, with a focus on the slavery underlying the whole institution. Once you say that, or some less ridiculous version of that, you have a whole new way to judge your “progress.” A whole new question, really. Did I achieve the historical feel of the Declaration signers—WAS THE SONNET THE RIGHT FORM FOR THIS SUBJECT MATTER!—and did I achieve the revelation of slavery’s othering that I wanted to achieve, and et cetera? Much easier ground to tread, all those questions. And they have sort of swept the original task under the rug. If you sit and talk about all the Declaration signers and the nature of a sonnet, you might get to a point where you remember, and you might even ask: Hey, do you think this is a great poem? It has become a peripheral question.
PCG If you could pick a word for each one of your books to catalog them in a library or in your mind, what would those words be?
Agony (in progress!)
PCG Who is Joe Wenderoth the professor? How do you see yourself as a professor? What would you say is your teaching style? I’m interested in how you embody this role or what your experience is being up there, leading undergrads and grads. Do you still read your student evaluations?
JW I don’t read them anymore, no. I saw no good in doing it. If someone made a complaint, I might get angry. If someone heaped up sincere praise, I might feel tremendously sad. So it just makes more sense for me to live without them. As for who I am as a teacher, I’d say that I am authentically lost and alert. Poetry being a practice of the orientation that might develop when a disorientation has been authentic.
PCG Tell us a bit about your About Brett Favre podcast.
JW Well, Paola, as you know, podcasts have been sweeping the nation. And I have this practice whereby I record my environs a lot of the time. I have you in my collection, I’m sure. Public spaces, family situations, old people talking on the telephone, three-year-olds talking in the living room, poetry readings, dinners, and on and on. So I thought: I have all this good stuff on audio and it seems like doing a podcast (on the low-fi) is something like making a mix tape. I thought: What would it be like if a podcast was not afraid to take that next step? What would it be like if a podcast dared to show everything? Brett Favre is the central figure in the post-mortem age, and our society’s refusal to come to grips with this fact is no doubt the fault of the sort of people who refuse to even listen. Isn’t it about time someone took action?
1 These passages are selected from Antonin Artaud’s 1947 radio play, To Have Done with the Judgment of God. Listen to his 1968 performance of this text, with percussive accompaniment, here.